I’ve said before that I was not really aware of what Japanese Americans and Canadians went through in World War II until I moved to California. I don’t recall there being anything in our history books at that time about U.S. or Canadian internment camps, and I was horrified to learn our country had them. I thought only Hitler did things like that. Maybe it’s my continuing need to understand this that draws me to novels like The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake. This novel is about family, loyalty and betrayal, and the strength it takes to rebuild your life from nothing. Let’s see if it’s a novel you’ll want to read.
Thirteen-year-old Irene Aya Shimamura’s family spent World War II in a Canadian internment camp even though they were from Vancouver, not Japan. Well, the family was originally from Japan a few generations ago but they had been Canadian for a long time, and the only life Aya had ever known was as a Canadian. She doesn’t even know Japanese. Everything they had was taken from them when they were sent to the detention camp, and now they have nothing. Even Aya’s mother is gone, having died while they were living in the camp.
When the war finally ends, they are only given two choices. They can move east of the Rockies and try to build a new life there from nothing or they can be sent “back” to Japan. The one thing they will not be allowed to do is to return to their home town of Vancouver, the only place they know anyone or might have a better chance to make a good life for themselves. Why such cruel and seemingly impossible choices? Why can’t they just go home? Oh, and they have no time to consider the real ramifications of their choice, which has to be made immediately.
Aya’s father knows some Japanese so he chooses for them to become repatriated as Japanese citizens. It means they can never return to Canada but at least, hopefully, they will be able to build a life for themselves among people like them. And who can blame them for no longer trusting Canada or the U.S. to care about what becomes of them. Moving to Japan might provide only a faint hope, but it seems like a better choice than staying where they will be discriminated against.
What Aya’s father had not bargained for was the conditions they will find when they reach Tokyo in 1946. He knew Japan had suffered during the war but did not realize how impoverished the country had become. Although they are having to rely on distant relatives who resent them now, he’s hopeful they will be able to build a life for themselves there eventually.
Aya is a complete fish out of water in Japan, a country which seems so alien to her. She has grown up on Canada’s West Coast and is a Canadian. She has no idea how to fit into the Japanese school culture, which is radically different from what she’s known. She’s every bit as much of an outcast in Japan was she would have been in Canada. She’s lonely and misses everything about her home. And she’s clueless about the strict etiquette and unwritten rules one must live by as an unmarried girl in Japanese society.
“After this brief consultation, the principal returned to the doorway and reentered, this time followed by a girl who hunched her shoulders like an old woman and hung her head so low no one could see her face. She looked miserable.
‘This is your new student,’ the principal said aloud. He was speaking to Kondo Sensei but now everyone could hear.
‘Shimamura, Aya Shimamura.’ He jerked his chin in the girl’s direction. ‘She’ll start today.’…
‘As of today, Miss Shimamura will be joining our class. We are very lucky.’ He paused as if uncertain how to continue. ‘She is from America.’
This remark caused an almost electric charge to flow through the classroom.”
Her school teacher takes pity on her and assigns another student, Fumi, to help her get used to the way the school operates and to help her learn to fit in. It sounds like a very generous and helpful plan. The only problem is that Fumi can’t stand her, at least not at first. Like most thirteen-year-olds, Fumi finds Aya strange because she isn’t like Fumi and her friends – anything different is highly suspect at that age.
“Ever since her sister had gone away, Fumi looked forward to the democracy lunches with a special, ravenous hunger. The American soldiers came to her school once a week with deliveries, and though she never knew what they would bring, it didn’t matter. She wanted it all, whatever it was…The lunch supplements reminded her of the kind of presents her sister, Sumiko, used to bring in the days when she still came home.”
But as they get to know each other, they begin to find common bonds and to gradually become friends. And it turns out that Fumi needs Aya’s friendship every bit as much as Aya needs hers. You see, Fumi’s older sister, Sumiko, is missing. Sumiko got lured into the seemingly glamorous world of bar girls [post WWII Japanese bar girl photo at right]. These were girls who entertained GI’s stationed in Japan during and after the war. It was a way to make money to help keep the family from starving and to live a glamorous looking life that wasn’t constant privation, even if it did mean tossing aside all of the strict edicts Japanese society held for unwed girls.
By 1947, Fumi and Aya decide they need to bring Sumiko’s disappearance to General McArthur’s attention by writing him a letter. Hasn’t he said that the Japanese people can bring their problems to him and that he will help them? Since Sumiko was working in the bars American GI’s frequented, who better to help find her than General McArthur? And that’s how Matt, a Japanese American GI in McArthur’s office who’s lonely and feels lost in Japan, ends up reading their letter…a letter he can’t seem to get out of his mind.
“’Arthur, don’t point.’
The voice wasn’t harsh. Even when it reprimands him, it is the voice he loves. ‘Yes, Father.’…
‘Your mother explained about the photographers, didn’t she?’
‘Yes, sir.’ He will have his picture taken with his father, and it will appear in all the newspapers and magazines in America…
Up ahead, the boy spots two girls lining the route. He can’t help noticing other children, especially if they look at all close to his age. Suddenly one of the girls breaks from the crowd and dashes onto the road. She is heading straight for them, as if she means to run directly in front of the car’s path…The girl is close to the car now, close enough for the boy to see her eyes. She is staring right at him, locking her wild gaze on him, and he finds he cannot turn away…He wants to tell his father what he has seen, to share this extraordinary thing that has happened on this extraordinary day, but General McArthur is chewing on the end of his pipe, deep in important and private thought.”
Three lonely young people who don’t feel like they fit in anywhere are brought together because of a girl’s disappearance. Can they find Sumiko? Can they find a way to make a life for themselves in a place where they feel like such outsiders?
It’s easy to sympathize with Aya because she’s been ripped away from everything she’s ever known. Fumi, however, grew on me as I got to know her and learned why she had such a tough outer shell. Once I got to know her, I realized their teacher had done a good deed for them both by foisting them onto each other. Matt is not trusted by the Japanese or his fellow GI’s, so he’s even more alone than the girls are. And Sumiko, who has made some really bad choices – well, I’ll let you learn about her when you read the novel. We’d all like to think we wouldn’t make the choices Sumiko makes; however, you’ll have to read about her to find out who she is underneath those choices.
Lynne Kutsukake has written a touching and, above all, an intriguing novel. Life can turn upside down for anyone – no one is immune from that. I love reading about people who dig deep to find their inner strength and who never give up. The Translation of Love definitely fits that category. I found myself feeling very proud of these girls, and cheering them on in their seemingly impossible quest. So, on top of everything else, The Translation of Love is a story of hope and redemption. I hope you like it as much as I did!
Author Appearances & Book Signings:
April 14, 2016 at 7pm at the Barbara Frum Public Library in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
April 17, 2016 at 6:30pm at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
April 27, 2016 at 7pm for the Kama Reading Series, Gardiner Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
May 18, 2016 at 6pm at the Uoft Robarts Library in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
September 28, 2016 at 12pm at the Kingston WritersFest in Kingston, Ontario, Canada (date/time tentative)
Can’t wait to read it? The Translation of Love is available in all forms from your favorite online bookseller. Click on the link below and you can have it to read instantly!
I’d love to get your comments on The Translation of Love, Lynne Kutsukake and/or her other work, and/or this revi